Sara Burnett is the author of the poetry chapbook Mother Tongue (Dancing Girl Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Bullets into Bells, Matter, Poet Lore, SWWIM, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in English literature from the University of Vermont. She lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter.
Q: What was the genesis for your poem “Cherchez la Femme”?
SB: I wrote the poem soon after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified about her sexual assault during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Incidentally, today, October 4, is the one-year anniversary of his confirmation. I was so angry that once again some of the same white male senators who listened to Anita Hill would be seated again, passing judgment on a woman’s claim of sexual assault, deciding if a male judge credibly accused of such behavior deserved to be deciding cases on the highest court in our country, for the rest of his life. As with Ms. Hill, Dr. Ford’s mental state would be questioned in the hearing. Other women who had claims would not be heard.
This infuriated me, and, like many other women, I thought about the times I had been mistreated, dismissed, ignored, unheard, or blamed. I thought about the mob chants of “Lock her up” at Trump rallies and the vulgar “locker room” language. I thought about my two-year old daughter and what would happen if she at 16 (the age of Dr. Ford’s assault) had such a claim, especially as these institutions of white male power and privilege remain intact.
But what to do with such anger? I was reading and rereading Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin at the time. There’s a poem in there that begins “But there never was a black male hysteria…” and that was the match that lit my own poem. I could take that anger and wield an almost equally powerful expression.
I love how the poem moves from women of literature (e.g., Penelope, Lady Macbeth) to aggressions and micro-aggressions that we can recognize from the present to finally the first-person plural at the end of the poem. How did you arrive at that structure, and what effect did you want to create with it?
Once I was able to start the poem with the hysterical woman as archetype, it was easy to keep going with the anaphora. I think the part where the poem shifts is the line “never a bruise, a blemish, a scar” because the body is an undeniable, material fact. That’s where the poem moves for me from the mythic or literary realm into reality. Blending these two worlds kept the poem interesting and fresh to me while upholding the original conceit. In a way, it’s unfortunate the poem was rather easy to write because it really did pour out of me. Some of the microaggressions are ones I have personally experienced and some are not. The first-person plural seemed like a natural fit.
There’s a lot of negation of women’s experiences in this poem with the constant refrain of “There never was…”, and then it flips to “there was…” about two-thirds of the way through. Why does negation get more real estate in the poem, and what prompted the pivot?
Denying anything so forcefully and repetitively often works to affirm its existence. The voice in which I wrote this poem says yes of course, there was an angry woman, a hysterical woman, a woman in a red dress, etc. and guess how she got to be that way. That said, while writing I remember being aware that someone could read it very literally and that would be a mistake. So, I think to compensate, I switched to “there was…” to show maybe how this archetype came to be—how the microaggressions can add up with possibly violent results.
I’m not exactly sure why the negation gets more real estate in the poem except to say that after I pivot to the affirmative “there was,” the music of the poem changes too, and the effects, both rhetorically and lyrically, are immediate and powerful. Although the poem is not a sonnet, I think you can feel the imprint of Hayes’s sonnets in the last two lines, which read like a sonnet’s closing couplet.
In this poem you interrogate how “hysterical” women have been viewed throughout [literary] history. But you also have a blog, Writing While Parenting. These seem like two different aspects of the experience of being a woman. How do you think about that, and how does it come into your work?
First, I should say I haven’t really written on that blog in a while, but the blog came to be because I was struggling initially with how to be a mother and a writer and really the larger question: would I ever be the person I was before I was a mother? The blog was a way to hold myself accountable to writing, to be more flexible and forgiving, and that was good for a while, but I outgrew its intention, which means it was successful for me. I am, however, always appreciative when I hear that other new mothers have found it helpful. So, I only write on it occasionally now.
To answer your question however, like the archetype of the “hysterical” woman, I am also fascinated with the archetype of mothers. Particularly on the blog, you’ll see a lot of paintings of mothers that I question. I’m interested in how these female archetypes, whether the “hysterical” woman or the “mother,” came to be, what they reveal about us (men and women), what’s limiting and/or unfair about them, what’s magical and myth. Recently, I’ve written a bunch of poems in Demeter’s voice about climate change, and I think working with an archetype like her (a mother and an angry, grieving goddess) allows me to go deep into those questions. Being a mother in this moment, I do find myself angrier and more grief-stricken at the world, and being a writer-poet gives me a tool for expressing that point of view compellingly, and maybe in a way that is heard beyond divisive party lines.
Are there other topics and/or poetic devices that you’re drawn to in your work?
Right now, I am writing a lot about climate change while raising a small child (and quite soon, two small children). Recently, I was at a poetry reading and Q&A where Danez Smith said poets are “banging the war drums.” I’m drawn to any writer who is doing that kind of work right now on almost any topic. I am also rereading some ancient texts like Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura because they seem to be speaking so presciently to our current moment, and I’m in awe of Ilya Kaminsky’s use of the parable in his latest book, Deaf Republic.
How did you get involved with the Enoch Pratt Poetry Contest/Little Patuxent Review?
I love the spirit of social justice in the contest and I have previously sent in poems. I love that the Little Patuxent Review pairs with the Enoch Pratt Free Library to do this contest each year because it elevates its accessibility to the public. I was really blown away by the powerful poems shared by the other poets who were finalists as well as the winner, Jalynn Harris.
Do you have a favorite piece from the current issue?
I really like Tom Large’s poem “October.” It has that Wordsworthian quality where the absence of someone is more present when revisiting a place, but it’s also a very surprising poem. You don’t necessarily realize it’s an elegy until the last stanza and it’s a very careful and tender rendering. It’s a quiet poem with a heavy emotional impact.
What are some of your future writing projects? Where can people find your other work?
I did just start to send a book manuscript out this month. I’ve attempted it before, but this one feels good to me, like it clicks in a way my other attempts have not. I don’t what that means of course, or if it will get published. I do have a list of published poems or essays on my blog, and my chapbook, Mother Tongue, is available from Dancing Girl Press. For right now, though I’m welcoming my second child into the world next week, so I’ll be busy focusing on him or her for a while. That’s a lifelong project.
Thank you to Sara for answering my questions, and best of luck with your book manuscript and growing family!
To read more of our Summer 2019 issue, order your copy.